Diaspora Jews Butted in but Netanyahu Won the Elections Anyway

From Chuck Norris to Sarah Silverman and beyond, this election attracted a massive amount of foreign involvement – for all the good it did.

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Sarah Silverman in Los Angeles, Dec. 10, 2014.
Sarah Silverman in Los Angeles, Dec. 10, 2014.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

As Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory was becoming a certainty on Tuesday night, a friend texted “maybe we Jews in Europe should make Aliyah for one week, then go back home and vote in Israeli elections ever after to guarantee our own security.”

My friend is like hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Jews living worldwide – emotionally invested in Israel but unlikely ever to leave the country where he was born. Israel is a country where he has family, that he cares deeply about and that serves as an insurance policy he hopes and believes he will never have to cash in. Many nations have diasporas, but in this sense of somehow guaranteeing the diaspora’s security, Israel is unique.

I doubt any Jews are actually going to go to through the entire rigmarole of obtaining citizenship just so they can vote in the elections (for which they would have to fly to Israel specially, since only diplomats can vote abroad). But seeing the results on Tuesday night, I’m sure many of them must have felt something similar. If only they could have done something to prevent Netanyahu winning a fourth term (and yes, I know there are many other Jews in the diaspora who support Bibi, but they would have felt the same if Herzog had cruised to victory instead).

There are some Jews in the diaspora who have the money or a big enough platform to try and influence Israeli elections. Take comedienne Sarah Silverman for example. who tweeted last week “ISRAEL! If you are a Meretz supporter you NEED to VOTE MARCH 17. Every vote counts. If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” Now, I love Silverman and her sick comedy really speaks to me. And Meretz was one of the two parties I considered voting for. I certainly didn’t want this essential player in Israeli politics to fall beneath the electoral threshold. But there was something so insulting about Silverman’s tweet that I was glad I had already decided not to vote Meretz.

Silverman, like every other person in the world, can express a view on another country’s internal politics, but going as far as to suggest to the citizens of that country how they should actually use their vote is crass and in extremely bad taste. What’s more, it’s almost certain to be counter-productive. I would be extremely surprised if anyone voted Meretz because of Silverman’s tweet and I can totally see the typical Israeli leftist, who broadly agrees with Meretz’s platform but is put off by its insular cosmopolitanism, seeing that tweet and preferring a different party.

Social media was full of justifiable ridicule of the video of 1980s action star Chuck Norris expressing his admiration for Netanyahu’s strong leadership. Silverman’s plea for Meretz was just as pitiful. Some would say that she’s different as she’s Jewish and has close family in Israel, including a sister who is an active Meretz member, but that only means she should have known better.

The foam on the tidal wave

But Silverman and Norris are just the foam on a massive tidal wave of foreign involvement in this election. Netanyahu’s disgusting remark on Election Day about the “droves of Arabs” descending on the polls, was an inexcusable act of cynicism, but his accusations of millions of dollars of foreign money financing the NGOs encouraging Israelis to vote for parties that opposed his reelection were at least based on fact. Netanyahu of course failed to mention two other facts – nearly all that money funding anti-Netanyahu campaigns came from Jewish philanthropists, deeply concerned over the direction in which he is taking Israel. Since Netanyahu recently said he was not only the prime minister of Israel but a spokesman for the entire Jewish people, it’s rich that he objects to those Jews who don’t want him speaking for them to try and contribute to his removal by democratic means.

The other fact Netanyahu conveniently omits is that he is of course the principal beneficiary of such foreign funding. His patron, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, has taken advantage of a loophole in the political financing laws (in a similar way to what he has done in the United States with Super PACs) to found a daily newspaper, given away for free, slavishly idolizing Netanyahu and smearing his opponents. In this case as well, the foreign interference has not worked. Netanyahu may have won handily, but it wasn’t thanks to Yisrael Hayom.

If Yisrael Hayom was such an effective propaganda tool as Adelson and perhaps Netanyahu (though I’m not sure on that count) seem to think it is, then why was Netanyahu in such trouble in the polls only a week ago. Why did he suddenly ditch his campaign policy of not giving interviews and instead rush out in crisis mode, talking into (nearly) every microphone available, giving more interviews in six days to Israeli media than he had in six years? He could have made do just with Yisrael Hayom, but he realized it wasn’t effective when he really had to reach out to the Israeli public. He ultimately succeeded and won these elections not thanks to Adelson’s free sheet, but in spite of it. Most right-wingers I know despise Yisrael Hayom just as much as the typical left-winger does. It is a tainted title, both due to its evident bias towards only one man, and because by now nearly all Israelis see it for what it is - a foreign billionaire's plaything.

I’m not happy with the outcome of this election. I doubt most Israelis are. Many right-wingers voted Likud simply because they didn’t want a government led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, but they would have done so much more gladly if someone else was party leader. Others voted out of protest for Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which will now be part of Netanyahu’s new coalition. But if it was possible to overcome other political differences and form an anti-Netanyahu coalition, it would have a clear majority in the new Knesset. This is the Israeli electoral system and we have to work with what we have.

Diaspora Jews are welcome to engage in Israeli public life. I hope that more of them do so to encourage a more liberal civil society that will finally find the way to end the destructive occupation of another nation and improve our ailing democracy. But whatever cause they promote, there will always be a line that if they cross it, influence will become interference and more likely than not fail to produce the desired result. This election was the decision of Israeli voters. They will be the ones paying the price for their choice.

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